Zonotrichia atricapillagolden-crowned sparrow

Geographic Range

Golden-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) are common to shrubby lowlands of the Pacific coast. They are widely distributed across the Pacific coast of North America, dispersing from the northern shrublands of Alaska and British Columbia to the southern edges of California and Baja Mexico. During the winter, golden-crowned sparrow males and females migrate from British Columbia to Baja California, mainly west of Sierra Nevada. Golden-crowned sparrows are widely distributed along the Pacific coast, but can also be found as far east as Massachusetts. (May, 1928; Shizuka, et al., 2016)


Most of what is known about golden-crowned sparrows is based on research during winter, when they migrate across the southern border of Canada to the southern border of California. Golden-crowned sparrows are usually found in shrubby, chaparral ecosystems along the Pacific west coast. In the north, they are found in shrubby tundras where willow thickets are commonly their homes. (Davis, 1973)

Physical Description

Golden-crowned sparrows are easily identified by the distinctive gold patch with two adjacent black stripes extending from their beaks to the backs of their heads. These patches on adults are most distinctive during the summer. The patches and the two adjacent black stripes dull during winter. Juvenile golden-crowned sparrows have plumage similar to the winter plumage of adults, with dull gold patches and brown adjacent stripes. The overall body color of golden-crowned sparrows is a gradient of a brown with distinct white underbellies. There are no physical differences in the appearance of males and females. (Mailliard, 1932; Norment, et al., 1998)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike


Little has been studied about the mating processes of Golden-crowned sparrows; however research has shown that they are monogamous. Golden-crowned sparrows breed in the winter, with nesting sites predominantly in Alaska and western Canada. (Hendricks, 1987)

Clutch sizes for golden-crowned sparrows range from 3 to 5 eggs. Eggs can vary from 2 to 2.5 cm in length and 1.5 to 1.8 cm in width. Their eggs are usually incubated for a duration of 11 to 13 days and hatchlings remain in the nest for 9 to 11 days thereafter. Golden-crowned sparrow eggs are pale blue to greenish-blue in color and are often speckled with reddish-brown to pale-grey spots. Golden-crowned sparrows are altricial, meaning they are born naked with their eyes closed and depend entirely on their mothers for nutrition. Golden-crowned sparrows fledge after about 12 days in the nest, and are ready to leave on their own. (Fenimore, 2009)

  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 5
  • Range time to hatching
    11 to 13 days
  • Range time to independence
    12 (low) days

Both male and female golden-crowned sparrows contribute parental care. They usually build their nests on the ground, with materials such as twigs, dry bark, mosses, and fern leaves. These nests are well concealed from predators and are protected by male golden-crowned sparrows, which sing from nearby perches. Female golden-crowned sparrows have also been found to collect the hair of moose and caribou to line their nests. Male golden-crowned sparrows also forage for food while their mates are incubating eggs, and stay after offspring are hatched to help feed them until they are fledged. (Hendricks, 1987)


The oldest known golden-crowned sparrow lived 10 years and 6 months. (Klimkiewicz and Futcher, 1987)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    10 years 6 months (high) hours


During the breeding season (in summer), golden-crowned sparrow are usually found in pairs. During winter they form flocks with other golden-crowned sparrows and with white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys), a close taxonomic relative. Golden-crowned sparrows feed on the ground and in low cover to avoid predators. During the winter, when food is scarcer, they compete for food by raising their feathers and running towards each other. When food is more abundant, especially during the summer, golden-crowned sparrows are less aggressive. Golden-crowned sparrows are highly territorial throughout breeding grounds. Individuals can defend up to 2.5 acres of land. Although they are usually monogamous, female golden-crowned sparrows sometimes mate with multiple partners. Golden-crowned sparrows are also very well known for their songs. Their song is commonly described as “oh-dear-me” and historically they were called “no gold here” birds by Yukon miners due to the sound of their calls. (Fenimore, 2009)

Communication and Perception

Golden-crowned sparrows use high-pitched whistles to communicate in wooden areas, where high frequency sounds travel farther. Songs usually begin with a descending whistle and consist of 3 to 4 combinations of whistles and buzzes. They often add trills to the end of their songs, which usually sound similar to phrases like “I’m so tired.” Although golden-crowned sparrows share many similar sounds to white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys), their introductory whistles are significantly different and nestlings are able to differentiate between the calls of these two species. Various Golden-crowned Sparrow dialects have been studied and researchers have found that differences in dialects accumulate with increasing migration distance. During the breeding season, males sing from treetops to attract mates. (Hudson and Shizuka, 2017; Shizuka, et al., 2016)

Food Habits

Golden-crowned sparrows are omnivorous ground feeders that forage for fruits, seeds, insects and vegetation. Foraging around dense shrubbery and in flocks provides protection from predators. Feeding habits during the winter and spring are significantly different, with winter diets consisting almost entirely of vegetation. During the summer, golden-crowned sparrows usually forage alone or with their mates. Flowers make up a large part of summer diets. Golden-crowned sparrows prefer newly sprouted weeds over seeds. (Davis, 1973; Mailliard, 1926; Norment, et al., 1998)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • terrestrial worms
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • nectar
  • pollen
  • flowers


Golden-crowned sparrows are prey to larger birds like sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus), mountain pygmy owls (Glaucidium gnoma), and northern shrikes (Lanius excubitor). Rodents such as Columbian ground squirrels (Urocitellus columbianus) and eastern chipmunks (Tamius striatus) are known predators of nests and adult golden-crowned sparrows. California thrashers (Toxostoma redivivum) and song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) compete with golden-crowned sparrows for nesting sites during the breeding season. (Altmann, 1956)

Ecosystem Roles

Haemoproteus spp. and Leucocytozoon spp. are both known blood parasites of golden-crowned sparrows. Golden-crowned sparrows flock with several other sparrow species, including white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) and dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). (Norment, et al., 1998)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Haemoproteus spp., Leucocytozoon spp.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The behavior of golden-crowned sparrows are of research interest as they are able to survive in various habitats and travel long distances.

  • Positive Impacts
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Golden-crowned sparrows eat seeds and fruit from agricultural farms, but no economic impact has been quantified.

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Golden-crowned sparrows are listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN Red List and they are protected by the US Migratory Bird Act. The breeding population is estimated to consist of over 4 million birds distributed across the west coast of California and northern coast of Canada. Little is known about the potential impacts of climate change on these populations; however the remote breeding sites that golden-crowned sparrows often use has protected them from human disturbance. (Norment, et al., 1998)


Theresa Mai (author), California State University, San Marcos, Tracey Brown (editor), California State University, San Marcos, Galen Burrell (editor), Special Projects.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species


Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others


uses sight to communicate


Altmann, S. 1956. Avian Mobbing Behavior and Predator Recognition. The Condor, Volume 58 No. 4: 241-253.

Davis, J. 1973. Habitat preferences and competition of wintering Juncos and Golden-crowned Sparrows. Ecology, Volume 54 Issue 1: 174-180.

Fenimore, B. 2009. Backyard birds of Washington: How to Identify and Attract the Top 25 Birds. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith.

Hendricks, P. 1987. Breeding Biology and Nestling Development of Golden-crowned Sparrows in Alaska. The Wilson Bulletin, Vol 99 Issue 4: 693-696.

Hudson, E., D. Shizuka. 2017. Introductory whistle is Sufficient for early song recognition by Golden-crowned Sparrow nestlings. Animal Behaviour, Volume 133: 83-88.

Klimkiewicz, K., A. Futcher. 1987. Longevity Records of North American Birds: Coerebinae Through Estrildidae. Journal of Field Ornithology, Volume 58 Issue 3: 318-333.

Mailliard, J. 1926. A First Experience in Bird Banding. The Condor, Volume 28 Issue 2: 70-73.

Mailliard, J. 1932. Observations on the Head Markings of the Golden-crowned Sparrow. The Condor, Volume 34 Issue 2: 66-70.

May, J. 1928. Golden-crowned Sparrow in Massachusetts. The Auk, Volume 45 Issue 2: 222-223.

Norment, C., P. Hendricks, R. Santonocito. 1998. Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla). The Birds of North America, Volume 1: 360.

Shizuka, D., M. Lein, G. Chilton. 2016. Range-wide patterns of geographic variation in songs of Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla). The Auk, Volume 133 Issue 3: 520-529.